Ombudsman issues subpoenas to DOH, DBM to trace COVID-19 funds
The Office of the Ombudsman is summoning documents from the secretaries of the Department of Budget and Management and the Department of Health to find out where the funds for the local COVID-19 response went.
Ombudsman Samuel Martires told CNN Philippines’ The Source on Friday that his office is sending subpoenas to DBM Secretary Wendel Avisado and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III today to aid its ongoing probe on the country’s response measures amid the pandemic.
Martires said in focus are the special allotment release orders for cash benefits extended to the families of frontliners who got infected with the virus and died in the line of duty.
“There are some documents we want to get from the Department of Health which is the subject of subpoena,” Martires said.
“Gusto naming malaman kung saan ginamit itong pera, gaano katagal nabigyan ng ayuda ‘yung mga pamilya ng namatayan na mga frontliners, those who were inflicted by the virus… Nasaan ang pondo, nasaan ‘yung pera ngayon?”
[Translation: We want to know where the money was spent, how long it took to provide aid to the families of frontliners who died after they were inflicted with the virus… Where’s the money and where did it go?]
Budget Undersecretary Lloyd Lao told CNN Philippines that the agency already received the summons from the Ombudsman, which will form part of the ongoing probe into the government’s coronavirus response measures. Lao, who also supervises the Procurement Service, added that they already sent the requested documents.
The government has spent ₱354 billion for COVID-19 response as of June 9, according to DBM data.
President Rodrigo Duterte scolded DOH officials two weeks ago for the slow release of compensation to the family of health workers, saying he will “remove” them due to inefficiency. It is unclear if any DOH employee or official was sacked, but the President did appoint Southern Philippines Medical Center Director Leopoldo Vega as a new health undersecretary to handle this issue.
Caught by surprise?
The head of the country’s anti-graft body also slammed DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire’s comments that they were taken aback by the announcement of the probe two days ago.
Martires said the Ombudsman’s fact-finding teams first got in touch with Vergeire’s office but could not get her to talk on the phone. He added that they also called up the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, then Duque’s office when they started to investigate before the March 15 lockdown, so the officials cannot say they were caught by surprise.
Martires also disputed Vergeire’s claim that the probe will interfere with the DOH’s work on COVID-19 response and will dampen the morale of their employees. He said their request for cooperation simply involves releasing documents – something that “can be done by a mere clerk, not even by a division chief – unless they would like to ‘sanitize the documents’.”
Martires said the fact-finding investigation will also seek to establish if there were anomalies in the procurement of COVID-19 test kits vis-a-vis the locally-developed kits by the University of the Philippines, as well as delays in providing personal protective equipment to health workers.
Martires admitted that he is not happy with how government is handling the pandemic.
“I don’t think the medical frontliners are happy with what is happening, that is my assessment… I don’t think that people are also happy with what is happening,” said the head of the anti-corruption agency. If the country loses the frontliners one by one, who will the people run to, he added.
However, he clarified that the team is not yet exploring possible charges against DOH officials, saying they are focused on establishing the facts and pointing out who are responsible for lapses for now. He added that the investigation will last less than a year, or before a COVID-19 vaccine is discovered.
Martires also criticized how DOH is presenting the daily tally of COVID-19 infections, especially with how it lumps fresh and late cases into a distinction between new cases in Metro Manila and Central Visayas, and lump the rest of the regions as “others” instead of providing specific data.
“Sa mga nangyayari, parang may mga itinatago [As things are, it looks like they’re hiding something],” Martires said.
On calls for Duque to resign or take a leave of absence in the middle of the investigation, Martires said he will leave it to the health chief’s discretion. But whether Duque stays or takes a break will not affect their investigation, he added.— Source: Melissa Luz Lopez, CNN Philippines